Colored Sand and Gunpowder

Cai Guo-Qiang

With acid-free paper, glass and wood frames, art lasts. When art doesn’t preserve itself, it’s usually a cautionary tale. Consider Leonardo’s experimental and ultimately ruinous paint recipe for the Battle of Anghiari—his lost and oft-lamented mural. But when do artists create pieces that aren’t meant to last? In the United States, only arcane examples come immediately to mind, such as the sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt at the steamy 1904 World’s Fair, made entirely out of butter. And there’s performance art, too; an artist once played a violin on a New York City street corner, wearing ice skates on melting blocks of ice.

The East offers more philosophical examples of impermanent art. For centuries, Tibetan Buddhist monks have created mandalas, circular floor plans revealing the mind of Buddha, made from elaborate patterns of brightly colored sand. Last fall, I witnessed Tibetan monks finishing and destroying an ornate mandala. They chanted and swept its sand into a glass jar. Then, they poured the sand out in a nearby river, a shaking, thin banner of blurred green, red, yellow and blue into black waters. Buddhists believe that all things are impermanent; in this way, they honor the brevity of life.

In an uncanny reflection of Tibetan mandalas, Cai Guo-Qiang, a renowned contemporary Chinese artist, douses paper with traditional gunpowder, exploding it before curious audiences. He also creates firework displays, airborne wildflowers of light and smoke. He calls such work ephemeral paintings—a celebration of impermanent art, all colored sand and gunpowder.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.